Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Beekeeper's Lament

The Beekeeper's Lament is a book primarily based on one specific beekeeper, John Miller. If you're as clueless as I was when I read this book, you might think of a beekeeper as someone who has a few hives in his backyard to make some honey that he can give to his friends and neighbors. Or maybe he has enough to run a small farmer's market type store, selling produce from his fields as well.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Like every other agricultural product in this country, the production of honey is big, big business, albeit in this case not very profitable. The trials and tribulations of a professional beekeeper and his bees made for a fascinating and sympathetic tale.

Miller's family has been involved in bees for generations. As such, Miller has the science of beekeeping down to a science. It's hard even to know where to start when talking about the beekeeping business as it is one big cycle. Miller is headquartered in North Dakota. Why there? Because people don't live in North Dakota and he (and other beekeepers) can keep their bees somewhere where there is lots of alfalfa and such grown so that the bees can collect pollen and nectar for honey.

Seems simple enough. But it isn't. The lament of the beekeeper is actually many laments. First is the care of the bees. There are mites and fungi and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder where the bees just up and abandon the hive. There are bee thieves. There are pesticides used on fields that affect the bees. Mostly, though, there is the lack of money.

When the weather gets cold in North Dakota, Miller and his brethren load the hives onto tractor trailers and move their bees to warmer climates. They could stay and just let the bees winter over, losing some of them to cold temperatures but their is money to be made pollinating crops - citrus and almonds.

Who knew almonds were such big business? It's so big that almond growers can't take chances in letting nature do the pollinating of their trees for them so they hire beekeepers like Miller to bring their masses of bees to pollinate their acres of almonds. The problem is that almond honey tastes horrible. The beekeepers only do this for the money and goodwill to the almond growers.

Speaking of money, there's also the problem of imports of foreign honey, particularly from China. The quality isn't as good, is often watered down or corn syruped down and then there's the shenanigans on top of that. For instance, when it was discovered that Chinese honey contained chemicals (I believe from pesticides), the U.S. banned honey imports from China. Suddenly countries such as Singapore and other Pacific Rim countries that had never exported honey before became enormous sources of honey. Hmmmmm....

Following up on foreign honey, there are also foreign bees and the diseases and mites that may or may not come from them. On the one hand, beekeepers and use foreign bees to try and breed resistance to mites and fungi and such. On the other hand, bees such as the more aggressive African types can take over and wipe out existing bee colonies when accidentally introduced.

All in all, it's a royal pain in the butt to keep bees but those who love bees as Miller does do it well. The choice of Miller is inspired because he's an entertaining fellow and respected in the beekeeping community. His passion and quirkiness shine in the book and make for an entertaining read.

I didn't like it enough to make it two stars, though, because I felt at times Nordhaus dragged things on or reiterated points needlessly. It was minor - I never felt like the book bogged down - but it was frequent enough where it noticeably reduced my enjoyment. It's well worth the read to learn about a hidden side of agriculture and the challenges beekeepers face.

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